AUBURN — The game-winning drive Saturday began with 2 minutes and 14 seconds remaining.
It ended 11 plays and 60 yards later with Bo Nix’s 26-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Seth Williams. That’s how the Tigers beat Oregon, 27-21, to open the 2019 season.
Preparations for that drive began long before. They began before the defense made two key stops, before Joey Gatewood made it a one-point game and before Nix threw the first touchdown pass of his career to spark a run of 21 unanswered points, too.
They really began well before the Tigers even arrived in Arlington, Texas, way back during the early part of August.
This year, for the first time, the SEC sent full officiating crews to all 14 schools during the preseason. They embedded with teams for multiple days, attending meetings as a resource for coaches and players and refereeing practices to give both sides a chance to replicate a game experience before the season began.
Auburn spent a lot of its time with those officials working on two-minute situations, putting the team through eight live ones over a two-day span. Days later, before turning its full attention to the Ducks, the team spent its final practice of fall camp going through every possible end-of-game scenario, from offense to defense to special teams.
“It's really important to get those procedures. Because when you look at a season, if you want a chance to win a championship, a lot of times, it goes down to about three or four two-minute situations,” said wide receivers coach Kodi Burns, who won a championship playing for the Tigers in 2010.
“You've got to understand the situation. Do we need a field goal? Do we need a touchdown? What is the line we're trying to get to? What is the defense thinking? Those little details are what's valuable.”
Gus Malzahn made drilling those little details over and over again a priority during the preseason. a lot of close games this season, and Saturday’s win over Oregon might be only the beginning. The Tigers have games remaining at No. 11 Texas A&M, No. 10 Florida and No. 6 LSU and vs. No. 3 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama.
It's unlikely that any wins in that span will be blowouts. That’s why Saturday’s result is significant for far more reasons than that it got the Tigers off to a 1-0 start.
“A game like that, you can really learn a lot about yourself — a lot of weaknesses, a lot of strengths — and then just learning trust, earning trust between your teammates, the coaches, and just learning how to fight. It’s really games like that that can set you apart,” junior linebacker K.J. Britt said. “Winning close games is really what sets championship teams apart, from Week 1 to Week 12. We know Coach Malzahn put an emphasis: We’ve got to win close games."
Auburn did exactly that the last two times it was a championship team, in 2010 in 2013 — exactly half of the 28 games played during those two seasons were decided by one score, and the Tigers went 13-1 in those games, with that lone loss coming in the 2014 BCS National Championship game against Florida State.
Recently, though, Auburn has had much less success in those games. Saturday’s meeting with Oregon marked the 24th one-score game it has played since the start of the 2014 season. Even after the six-point win over the Ducks, the Tigers are just 11-13 in those games.
Maybe none of those 11 wins are as impressive as the one Auburn pulled off Saturday. It trailed by 15 points after the opening drive of the third quarter. When the Tigers’ next drive (six plays, 11 yards) ended in a punt from its own 36-yard line, the ESPN Football Power Index’s predictive tool gave them just a 6 percent chance of winning the game.
After the game, players said there was no panic on the sideline despite the deficit.
“Never did we doubt each other. Never did we start pointing fingers,” Nix said. “That's when it kind of hit me that we have a really good chance of coming back because it's not anybody's fault. We have a great mind‑set. We were down. We knew what we had to do. We had to go out there and do it.”
Nix’s touchdown pass to Eli Stove and Gatewood’s dive over the top made it a one-point game early in the fourth quarter. The defense made a pair of crucial stops, stuffing CJ Verdell on fourth-and-1 on the Auburn side of midfield and, after its own offense went three-and-out for a third time, getting a crucial second-down sack of Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert that forced a punt.
That set the stage for the game-winning drive. And while it was far from perfect (seven of the 10 non-spike plays covered 5 or fewer yards, and three went for no gain), the offense made enough plays to get into field goal range and, once it got there, score the go-ahead touchdown.
Specifically — Nix’s run on fourth-and-3; 9-yard pass to Spencer Nigh on second-and-10 that led to a 2-yard first-down run from JaTarvious Whitlow; 13-yard out to Williams that gave the Tigers first-and-10 at the 26 with 16 seconds remaining; and, of course, the game-winner that was shades of Patrick Nix-to-Frank Sanders all those years ago.
And while his name didn’t end up getting called, Malzahn believes placekicker Anders Carlson was “ready for that moment” if it came down to him attempting a game-winning kick. The sophomore was put in many pressure situations during fall camp as the offense and defense were.
After the team’s first fall scrimmage on Aug. 8, the entire team lined up around the sophomore as he attempted a 47-yard field goal from the right hash. Make it, and everyone wins. Miss it, and it was 10 up-downs for the entire team. Malzahn said he “drilled it right down the middle.”
“I would have felt comfortable with that. I think he would have felt comfortable. He was getting himself prepared,” Malzahn said.
The win was similar as the 2018 opener against Washington to open the 2018 season. But that momentum didn’t exactly carry over — Auburn blew an 11-point third-quarter lead in a one-point home loss to LSU two weeks later and never really got back on track during a 7-5 regular season, come-from-behind win over Texas A&M notwithstanding.
Auburn is confident this season can be different, though, in part because of the way the team prepared for it. The win over Oregon is a good start.
“Being able to rely on each other and our team going through adversity early in the season, that shows a lot of character,” senior defensive tackle Derrick Brown said. “Hopefully no matter what the situation is on the back end of the season, we’ll continue to just be able to fight for one another. Whether it be in all three phases, special teams, offense defense, just being able to fight for one another and come out and get the ultimate goal that everybody has.”